I have come to believe that curriculum should be defined as what a student needs to understand about a certain topic in order to be an informed and productive adult in the 21st century. Curriculum is not what we should teach, but what students should understand and be able to do. This is a significant point – It defines a goal rather than a prescription. In fairness, some curriculum does outline what students should understand. It is my observation however that many teachers view curriculum as what to teach; I was guilty of that for a period of time.
We gain understanding as we modify existing mental models to accommodate new information. Studies such as A Private Universe clearly show how some individuals can acquire extensive knowledge without changing their understanding of the world around them. An effective curriculum must provide activities and experiences that force students to confront their misconceptions and adjust their schema to a new and better understanding of the world.
Students need concrete, hands-on, experiences. These experiences provide a common point of prior knowledge for the class. Lessons then help students learn to create abstractions of their experiences. They must write, discuss, diagram, and calculate – follow the ladder of abstraction. The exact path a student follows along the ladder of abstraction is dependent on the student. A pre-determined lesson sequence may not be the best solution.
You might notice we just identified two of the three R’s of education; writing and arithmetic. What about reading? In today’s digital world information is gained by other means than just reading, therefore the old “R” of reading really represents information acquisition. Information can be acquired in online open courseware. Khan Academy offers over 3,000 videos that provide information. Good old fashioned books still work as well. The problem is that information does not equal understanding. Information is not education.
Literacy strategies are methods to help students create understanding from what they read. I believe students still need coaching to help them create understanding – we are just no longer confined to written text. We have to expand our range to encompass video, images, songs, and lectures.
The true role of the teacher now is to guide students – we provide experiences that require them to confront their mental models and provide guidance and strategies that help them create understanding. This is certainly a higher order thinking challenge that needs to be addressed in the classroom. If we use class time to write, discuss, diagram, and calculate, when do we have time to acquire the facts that we need to construct our new mental models?
This is the domain of the flipped model of instruction. It is not about video lecture. The flipped model is about allowing students to acquire knowledge outside of class. Students learn facts outside of class they will need to apply in class. Hopefully the “homework” is interesting and engaging – a boring lecture remains a boring lecture. The flipclass homework needs to be an opportunity to gain knowledge and skills students want in order to do engaging work in class. In the good ‘ol days that was called assigned reading. Ok, back then we had trouble getting kids to read – today we have issues getting kids to read…or watch the video…or complete the simulation. It’s the same problem with new variations. How do we engage students and generate interest?
I believe the answer goes back to the beginning of this discussion and our view toward curriculum. If students show up every day and a teacher only tells them what to learn, they will not be engaged. Teachers have to begin by knowing their students. To engage every student, we have to know every student –as an individual.
This is where a good teacher enters the equation. We have to understand the existing mental models of our students. Once we understand how our students think, what they know, and what their interests are, we use our pedagogical knowledge and content knowledge to design classroom experiences. Since not all students have equal backgrounds, a one-size-fits-all curriculum probably will not meet the needs of all students.
Meeting the needs of all students – that’s where we need to focus our discussion. Curriculum must be a flexible, malleable, construct that allows multiple paths toward a common goal of student understanding. Effective teaching is finding the best path toward understanding for a particular group of students. Flipped classrooms, online learning, modeling instruction, and traditional models are all useful as methods of instruction as long as they fit the needs of the student. Any of these methods fail when implemented because they are the latest trend or newest fad. If we engage students’ interests, focus on what they need to do, and what they need to understand rather than what we need to teach, education works.